Mediahuis offers lessons from digital-focussed, post-COVID ad sales team restructure

By Mark Challinor


London, United Kingdom


I recently had the pleasure of hosting an INMA master class on the future of our sales teams. One media company stood out as being forward thinking in this space. That is Dutch publisher Mediahuis in the Netherlands.

They showcased how they hope to achieve operational excellence for advertising clients. 

Mediahuis restructured its sales team in a digital direction, reducing its size and changing in-person client visits.
Mediahuis restructured its sales team in a digital direction, reducing its size and changing in-person client visits.

In 2022, they restructured their ad sales team to shift from a print-led focus to a more digital one, and in the process eventually reduced the size of the team to make it more efficient in a post-pandemic environment.

Boaz Shkolnik, director of advertising for Mediahuis, shared the success story as well as lessons learned.  

The company includes its flagship Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, the Metro News digital portal, as well as a suite of local and regional newspapers and niche lifestyle magazines on topics like parenting, cooking, and technology. It reaches an audience of 10 million in the Netherlands and has a presence in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and Luxembourg.

How many sales staff is efficient? 

Boaz said: “We have many different titles, platforms, and products to sell, so ad sales is a complex endeavour.” He came to Mediahuis from a tech start-up five years ago and joined an ad sales team of more than 80 people who had been mainly focused on print advertising. Only seven team members had digital expertise. At that time, most of the revenue also came from print, with only a small portion from digital.  

The group consisted of many different sales teams, including separate ones for corporate, national brands, regional brands, agency, digital platforms, and programmatic. Each team had individual targets. And though everyone was working with some of the same clients, many different account managers were each trying to sell their own portfolios, all still with a print focus.  

Boaz described what he had inherited as “chaos.” He said the structure was inefficient and created a toxic environment with a lot of internal competition for revenue. You can only imagine what that was like and even sympathise, as he was and indeed is not alone inside global media — even to this day in some parts.

Two phases of restructuring 

In his role as director, Boaz decided to restructure the department and ultimately did so in two phases. 

The first one, in 2019, focussed on transitioning from print to digital and branded content. In this phase, teams were reorganised around clients rather than brands. Incentives were also shifted to being team-based rather than individual to encourage better collaboration.  

“Nobody can do anything by themselves, so why not put that into the incentive plan?” he said. In this phase, too, the company reorganised existing staff into “sales pods” based on different types of clients. They identified five different types: enterprise, which consisted of the top 200-300 clients who spent the most money with the company; agency; SMA (or small/medium advertisers) telesales (inbound, small campaigns); and international sales.  

The enterprise pods involved clients with more complex demands who wanted cross-channel, multi-use campaigns, (print, branded content, digital display, and video). Boaz wanted to work with the people he had but added more specialists to build multidisciplinary teams. 

Each pod had a team leader, and the enterprise teams also had two account managers, a content marketer, a digital consultant, and a customer success manager. These last three roles were all new positions.

The agency team had a more general approach. Each agency had its own account manager as well as a trading director. And with the small/medium advertisers, Boaz also saw they just wanted to buy print ads, and since their demands were simple, they could work with old sales team. 

Agile sales: A positive or a negative? 

Across all of these teams, Boaz tried the “agile sales” approach to reinforce the new way of working. This involved the typical daily meetings and monthly retrospectives to review processes and talk about how to optimise operations. The approach looked great on paper, but proved really complex in real life, so there were some important lessons learned. 

The restructuring occurred in two phases, with differing levels of success.
The restructuring occurred in two phases, with differing levels of success.

“Not every client wants to have direct contact,” he said. Some want to book via agencies and don’t really have time to talk to publishers. About half of the clients said they preferred this more hands-off approach, an important discovery since the Mediahuis model had been strongly invested in the direct contact approach.  

Boaz also saw that sometimes responsibilities were unclear, which caused some friction. And some of the portfolios weren’t that industry focused, making it harder for people to duplicate what they learned to similar clients. 

The multidisciplinary teams were also expensive, with large groups working with relatively small groups of clients.

In the end, agile sales hadn’t worked for Mediahuis. 

Having entire teams gather in one room daily was time-consuming and inefficient. Ultimately, retaining the same people but trying to have them adapt to different ways of working didn’t foster change that well and didn’t increase revenue as the company had hoped. 

So then, in a brave move, came the next restructuring phase in 2020. This was, of course, after COVID had hit, so in addition to incorporating these previous restructuring lessons into account, it also involved adjusting to pandemic work styles.

Calmness, clarity, and hard decisions needed in a crisis

As part of their COVID review process — where the staff was all in lockdown and budget hadn’t been met — they found that with campaigns being cancelled and the advertising world being “on fire,” the management team went back to the drawing board.

Mediahuis leadership was coming to the belief that they could do almost exactly the same work with half of the people. Therefore, management decided to downsize from more than 80 salespeople to just 30. They reorganised their 13 sales teams into just three by combining them based on client spending.  

They decided the account managers should be able to sell the whole package to the clients in their portfolio without the support of specialists like content marketers and digital consultants. They also structured the new field sales and inside sales teams, so portfolios were organised by industry.  

The new field sales team had, for example, an industry consultant-automotive, an industry consultant-retail, and industry consultant-travel. It’s very easy for them to become specialists within these branches because they’re having similar conversations with the same type of client. 

The inside sales team is also industry driven now and, perhaps controversially, doesn’t go out on in-person visits anymore. Not only had they discovered many clients preferred this at that point, Zoom visits had become the norm anyway. And because they were organised by industry, management was able to create buddies within inside sales and field sales teams based on those industries. 

The agency team was organised a little differently. It had had generalist account managers but needed more product specialists, and so the restructuring there led to product managers for branded content, digital advertising, and print. 

The importance of client spending levels 

The current market approach is now based on how much money a client is spending. Those spending upwards of €50,000 deserve to be paid a visit, Boaz said. Consultants take them out to lunch or a cup of coffee, and still wine and dine them.  

Advertising client spending levels dictate how much face time they get.
Advertising client spending levels dictate how much face time they get.

But clients spending below €50,000 are considered inside sales. They used to have account managers devoting a lot of time to visiting them, but the company decided it’s actually OK to give them a different service level, which allows account managers to handle many more clients. 

One account manager with a car can only make maybe two visits per day, but that same person can have eight Zoom meetings per day. “So with less people, we can have the same market pressure,” Boaz said. All the smaller clients are activated through e-mail now. This approach brought the cost per client down considerably.

Adopting a digital mindset 

This transition was also all done with digital-first mindset, continuing the move away from print. “We don’t have any print-only people in our workforce anymore,” Boaz said.  

The restructuring also incorporated the role of “brand ambassador” within full-time jobs. For example, the company has one brand ambassador for the automotive magazine who also serves the automotive industry. That person sells the whole portfolio but feels a sense of responsibility for the automotive magazine.

Brand ambassadors also look for opportunities with other brands, have connections with the relevant editorial teams, and help keep their brands top of mind with all the sales teams.

Summary and the lessons learned 

At the end of the day, Mediahuis found the second restructuring got the results they hoped for. 

The ad sales team is now more efficient, has higher margins and more revenue … with less than half the people. Though it did involve some cuts to the staff, the remaining workforce is happier and works better as a team with less internal competition.  

They learned it was very difficult to retrain print sales veterans to be suitable for digital sales, and that when they did the second restructuring, it was mainly the digital natives who had been brought on board as specialists in the earlier round who were selected to stay.

It was all quite a harsh lesson, but the remaining staff is far happier, more suited to their roles, and the overall culture change has been positive. As the saying goes, “You have to break eggs to make an omelette.”

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About Mark Challinor

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